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capitol gods

Capitol gods, historical fictions

By George A. Ricker

“Not Godly enough!”

That’s the verdict rendered on the newly opened Capitol Visitor’s Center by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and a few other conservative lawmakers. Specifically, DeMint objected to the erroneous presentation of the phrase “E Pluribus Unum”—the words are Latin and mean “from many, one”—as the national motto, instead of “In God We Trust.” Architects also had ignored his request to include the Pledge of Allegiance.

DeMint is bothered by the general tone of the center as well, charging that the “displays are left-leaning and in some cases distort our true history.” He took particular exception to the prominence of a quote by Rufus Choate, a legislator from Massachusetts who served in both the House and the Senate in the 1800s, who had stated, “We have built no temple but the Capitol. We consult no common oracle but the Constitution.”

“This is an intentional misrepresentation of our nation’s real history and an offensive refusal to honor America’s God-given blessings,” DeMint said.

Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Robert Bennett (R-UT)—respectively, the chair and ranking minority member of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which oversees the new center—have agreed “in principle” to some of DeMint’s demands. In a recent letter to DeMint, the two agreed to support engraving “In God We Trust” in stone in a prominent location; engraving The Pledge of Allegiance in stone in a prominent location and removing the words “Our Nation’s Motto” from the panel which features the phrase “E Pluribus Unum.”

The proposed changes will add about $150,000 to the $621 million cost of the center, which, because of increased security requirements and other additions, has already cost the American taxpayer three times what it was projected to cost when ground was broken on the project in 2000. One is reminded of Coleridge’s lines “In Xanadu did Kublai Khan a stately pleasure dome decree … .” The Visitor’s Center may not rival Xanadu, but its cost seems excessive. One press report quotes an anonymous Democrat describing the structure as “a beautiful disaster.”

However, it is not my purpose to discuss the pros and cons of the visitor’s center per se, but rather to comment on DeMint’s complaint about misrepresentations of our nation’s real history. I think the senator is on to something. In fact, I think he epitomizes the very flaw he claims to see.

Consider the business of the motto, for example. Now it is true that the phrase “In God We Trust” is the official motto of the United States. However, it is also true that those words only became the motto in the 1950s. Before then the de facto, albeit unofficial, motto of the United States was generally thought to be “E Pluribus Unum.” “In God We Trust” began to be engraved on U.S. coinage during the Civil War. It began to be printed on paper money at about the same time it was adopted as the official national motto. So history was really on the side of those who used “E Pluribus Unum” instead of its modern replacement. DeMint doesn’t mention any of that in his objection. Whether his ignorance is intentional or accidental, it is certainly ahistorical.

Indeed, “In God We Trust” really doesn’t work very well as a national motto. First, and most obviously, because it’s a lie. Neither the people nor the government of the United States of America has ever trusted in a god for anything. If we did, we wouldn’t need the huge defense budgets and nuclear arsenals. We might, if we really trusted in a god to provide, conclude we have no need for a government at all. Besides there are, by even the most conservative estimates, millions of U.S. citizens who believe in no god at all. Accuracy should require the motto to read “In God Some of Us Trust.” Then there is the pesky problem of the identity of the god to whom the motto refers. Is it the specific god of a specific religion? Is it a generic god-idea? If the latter, then how can any of us trust in a vague, generic reference to do anything? If the former, what about the many citizens who worship gods other than the one named in the inscription.

So while the senator is technically correct about the motto, his complaint that its omission has anything to do with denying our shared history is absurd. The same can be said of the Pledge of Allegiance. The “Pledge” has only existed in any form for a bit more than a century, and the words “under God” were not in it when it was originally written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister with socialist sympathies, or when it was first adopted as the official pledge to the flag of the United States of America. The words “under God” were not added to the “Pledge” until the 1950s. And here again, the claim that we are “one nation under God” can only be regarded as a gross exaggeration. We are one nation whose people worship many gods and some of whom worship no gods at all. Those who agitated to make a public prayer of our “Pledge of Allegiance” have made it difficult, if not impossible, for many United States citizens to say the pledge. What was once a voluntary rite of citizenship now seems to be more of a religious exercise. Personally, I doubt the men who founded this nation would have had much use for any sort of pledge. If they had written one, however, I am absolutely sure there would have been no “God” in it, just as none was mentioned in the preamble, body or amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

It is DeMint who distorts our history when he insists we must inject more “God” into the displays. Whatever the religious opinions of those who founded this nation, the government that was brought into being with the ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, the government that is epitomized by the Capitol Dome itself, was a secular institution that derived its “just powers from the consent of the governed.” It was a thoroughly human institution that sought to achieve a “more perfect union” by implementing a government “of the people, by the people and for the people.”

Certainly, religions have played an important role in our history. They were not, however, the most important influences on our national character and were not, to put it charitably, an unmixed blessing. Those who drafted the U.S. Constitution left religious opinions out of the document and outside the sphere of either government influence or interference. Those, like DeMint, who want to make it appear otherwise by decorating our national monuments with the trappings of religions are the ones who truly do not understand our national history. The quotation by Rufus Choate that so upsets the senator from South Carolina is far closer to the intentions of those who founded our national government than his own demurrers.

In Godless in America, I wrote the following: “None of this suggests that those who launched the enterprise called the United States of America thought religion was unimportant or insignificant. Many of them thought it a matter of supreme consequence. Religion was viewed by some of them as the indispensable ingredient for moral conduct and social stability. However, they also viewed religion as a matter between individuals and their ‘God.’ They did not think the federal government had a place in the process.” (pp 83-84)

Interpretations of the past we share change as succeeding generations attempt to write narratives that resonate with their own lives. But while historical narratives are influenced by the opinions of those who write them, the facts of history must form the basis of those narratives. It is an egregious distortion of the facts to claim, as DeMint and his fundamentalist brethren do, that our national government was founded on the belief in the “God” of Christianity or, for that matter, any other god of any other religion. Those who authored the Constitution may have shared belief in some sort of deity—though there were differences in their view of its nature—and in divine providence, but the government they created was based on the requirements and relationships necessary to a civil society, not on their religious opinions.

Our nation’s Capitol Visitor’s Center should reflect the spirit and letter of the Constitution and the history of the Congress itself. Both are thoroughly human inventions. Just as those who drafted the Constitution rejected efforts to insert both gods and religious opinions into the document, so should we today resist those who want to make our government appear more “godly” and thus erode its secular nature.

Senator DeMint will probably get his way regarding the addition of the Pledge of Allegiance and the modern version of the national motto to the visitor’s center. What must not prevail is his distorted version of our nation’s history.

It was the genius of the authors of the Constitution that they left “God” out of the document and crafted a federal government that would neither help nor hinder the free expression of religions by our citizenry. With the prohibition against religious tests for public office, the absence of any mention of “God” in the document itself, the freedom of religions granted by the “free expression” clause of the First Amendment and the freedom from religions granted by the “establishment” clause, the Founding Fathers attempted to guarantee the rights of conscience of all the citizenry, at least insofar as the federal government was concerned. The principles they articulated have been extended over the years to apply to state governments as well.

While it is a mistake to diminish the role religions and god-belief have played in our nation’s history, it is an even bigger mistake to exaggerate that role. The attempt to inject “God” into government in the 1950s—with the adoption of “In God We Trust” as the national motto, its placement on printed money, the insertion of “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance, and the passage of a law mandating a national day of prayer—was misguided and, in my view, violated the secular nature of our national government. We ought not compound that error by allowing a false picture of our nation’s history to prevail.

© 2008 by George A. Ricker

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